What is the relationship between language and culture?

March 22, 2017 10:00 am

Before answering this complex and difficult question, I need to define first these two notions. I will maintain Byram’s (2008) version for culture defined as “shared beliefs, values and behaviors of a social group”, where social group can be a family at a micro level and a nation at a macro level. For language, I will keep Kramsch’s (2002) version, since it refers to the relationship of language ‘creating’ socially shared realities or cultures – even if they are only temporary -, according to whom “language is used not just as a tool for the exchange of information, but as a symbolic system with the power to create and shape symbolic realities, such as values, perceptions, identities through discourse”.

What is the relationship between language and culture

Culture is defined as shared beliefs, values and behaviours of a social group.

Risager (2006) explores the link between language and culture when a communicative event takes place; by communicative event she means any social event, which also refers to a cultural event, so the best term is socio-cultural event in which languaculture (Agar, 1991) is used in a local integration with discursive and other cultural flows. She analyses the relationship between language and culture from three different perspectives: sociological, psychological and linguistic. In the first perspective, language and culture can be separable, since it is possible for a language to express or create, as Kramsch (2009) would say, different realities or cultures. In the psychological perspective these two are inseparable, since an individual carries all the linguistic and cultural experience within oneself. The third perspective is valid only in the practice of linguistics where language is analysed outside of its cultural context.

Language is used not just as a tool for the exchange of information, but as a symbolic system with the power to create and shape symbolic realities, such as values, perceptions, identities through discourse

mudamSo, since a communicative event comprises all kinds of human communication, a piece of art could be considered as a communicative event as well, since it englobes a semiotic concept perceived differently by diverse audiences. The trilingual system in Luxembourg along with the presence of some 100 nationalities on its territory provides an interesting context to investigate the relation between language and culture and address the question of art perception in multilingual settings. How do people of different cultures perceive a piece of art coming from another culture? Let me take as an example Many Spoken words (“la Fontaine d’encre de chine”) which lies in MUDAM, which as the artist remarks, “expresses the idea of the whole process of language: the way an initial thought or idea develops first into spoken, and then into written words” (Su-Mei Tse). The case of the artist is already very interesting, as Su-Mei Tse comes from a Chinese father and an English mother, and she was born and raised in Luxembourg and studied in Paris. The interpretation that she gives to her work is already a result of multiculturalism and multilingualism.

The relation of culture and language is the way they share human values, realities and behaviours of a social group.

As a conclusion, according to Kramsch, language expresses, embodies and symbolizes cultural reality.


Written by Georgia NTAI, Communication Trainee at TermCoord – Student at the University of Luxembourg.

Sources:

  • Agar, M. (1991). “The biculture in bilingual”. Language in Society, 20, pp. 167-181.
  • Byram, M. (2008). From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, Chap 4. “The intercultural speaker”.
  • Kramsch, C. (2009). “Discourse, the symbolic dimension of intercultural competence”. In A. Hu and M. Byram (eds) Interkulturelle Kompetenz und fremdsprachliches Lernen. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, pp. 107-124.
  • Risager, K. (2006). Language and culture. Global flows and local complexity. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 185-199.

Post prepared by Olga Jeczmyk: Translator-Interpreter, Social Media and Content Manager as well as Communication and Terminology Trainee. Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg.

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